Before the advent of commercial yeasts all bread would have been considered sourdough. Bakers realised that they could harness the natural yeast and bacteria from the flour and air to leaven their loaves. If they kept some of this pre fermented bread and flour mixture (known as a sourdough starter) behind, it could be used to leaven more loaves in future. The majority of bread you buy is made using commercial yeasts that enable fast and uniform leavening useful in a large scale bread making context. However, in making the process more efficient we lost the health benefits that defaulted from the old traditional methods.
Commercial bread is refined to the point where the germ (the only nutritious part of the grain) is discarded before being whitened with chlorine gas. Some breads have as many as 31 ingredients. Each ingredient has a different function from re-fortifying (often the nutrients stripped away by discarding the germ at the beginning of the process are re-introduced later) to creating the right consistency of dough for use in the machines. This process leaves us with a fluffy white bread, sweet in taste and almost completely devoid of nutritional value.
A lot of people marvel at the sudden rise of gluten intolerance. They are mystified or even dismissive of it’s pervasiveness as a mere trend. However, I think the processing of bread is perhaps more to blame than the gluten itself. Sourdough fermentation partially breaks down gluten, destroying some of the peptides thought to be responsible for gluten intolerance. The organic acids produced by a sourdough culture also slow our bodies absorption of sugars in white flour and reduce the dangerous spikes of insulin that can be caused by refined carbohydrates. Researchers in Italy have found that an adequately fermented sourdough could be tolerated, even by someone with celiac disease. I like to think of fermentation as an external stomach. The bacteria and yeast do some of the digesting for us outside our bodies. When the grain does finally enter our stomachs, the nutrients in are much more available.
How does sourdough work?
Bacteria from the air and yeast from the flour work symbiotically to ferment the grains. The lactic acid bacteria creates an environment for the yeast to grow and stops the invasion of things like mould. The sugars in the flour are broken down and the gas eliminated creates the rising effect of bread. This process creates a complex and sour flavour typical and unique to sourdough bread. Since gluten is sticky and elastic, it’s much easier to ferment than the gluten free grains. However, there is a way to speed up this process by adding a cabbage leaf to your sourdough starter. The white film you see on cabbage leaves is wild yeast. The same is also found on grapes. By adding a piece of cabbage to the starter you can effectively borrow this yeast and use it to help kick start the fermentations process. Once the starter is established, you use a portion of it in each batch of bread to act as the leavener and to add flavour.
How make a sourdough starter :
Sorghum flour. You can also use other types of gluten free flour, however, bear in mind that high starch flours like tapioca, millet and potato cause the yeast to act quickly meaning the starter will require more maintenance (feeding and stirring).
Organic red cabbage leaves
Place 1 cup of sorghum and 1 cup of filtered water in your container. Mix with a whisk.
Add 1 or 2 leaves of organic red cabbage. Mix those around with the flour-water slurry.
Cover with your porous material like cheesecloth or a kitchen cloth. You need air penetration for the bacteria to enter.
(The ideal temperature for yeast to grow at is around 21 to 24 degrees C. The colder the environment, the more slowly the yeast will grow. The warmer the environment, the faster the yeast will grow)
Stir it every so often (although try to stir it at least once during the 8 to 12 hours between feedings).
About 8 to 12 hours later, feed your starter: add 1 cup sorghum and 1 cup water.
Repeat this process every 8 to 12 hours. After about 48 hours you should see some bubbling action in your starter. This means it is ready to use for a batch of bread.
“Success as a baker demands a certain amount of negative capability - a willingness to exist amid uncertainty” - Michael Pollen
Making a sourdough is not something that will be successful solely based on your ability to avidly follow a recipe. It requires a certain patience and curiosity that, if mastered, will carry you far beyond your bread baking escapades!